Complaint seeks IRS audit of Warnock, church foundation

Credit: Arvin Temkar / AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar / AJC

A charity arm of Ebenezer Baptist Church should face an IRS audit for allegedly concealing its ownership in an Atlanta apartment building which houses chronically homeless and mentally ill residents, according to a complaint filed by a conservative watchdog group.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, who is seeking reelection to the U.S. Senate, is senior pastor at Ebenezer and the principal officer of the Ebenezer Building Foundation. He is also named in the complaint. That nonprofit foundation once owned the Columbia Tower at MLK Village and has close ties to MLK Village Corp., the for-profit company which purchased it in 2007.

Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Ebenezer Building Foundation and MLK Village Corp. share the same address. The foundation and MLK Village Corp. also have three officers in common, records show,

The foundation failed to disclose those connections on its federal 990 form, as required, the National Legal and Policy Center complaint said.

“It is abundantly clear that Ebenezer Building Foundation, Inc. has violated one or more IRS laws and regulations regarding the operation of a nonprofit charity,” the group said. “The IRS must conduct a full investigation and audit of the Foundation’s finances and transactions and assess appropriate civil and criminal penalties, and revoking their tax-exempt status if warranted. The public interest demands it.”

Warnock campaign manager Quentin Fulks linked the complaint to the senator’s Republican opponent, Herschel Walker, and his allies, who he said are, “deliberately misleading Georgians about Reverend Warnock and now going so far as to attack his church, the spiritual home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

“These are the same desperate attacks we saw in the last campaign and they won’t work this time either,” Fulks said.

The complaint comes after a story this week in the Washington Free Beacon, which found managers of the apartment building moved to evict at least eight residents during the COVID-19 pandemic, even as Warnock spoke out against such evictions during his 2020 race.

“Unlike my opponents, I’ve called for extending benefits and other protections, like freezing evictions, until the pandemic is manageable,” Warnock told Atlanta Magazine in a 2020 interview.

Some of the tenants at apartment building owed relatively small sums of money; one man just $28.55, records show. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reviewed legal documents confirming the eviction actions in Fulton County Magistrate Court. The first was filed in in February 2020 and the most recent in September 2022.

The eviction actions were filed by Columbia Residential, which has a 1% ownership in the building and manages the day-to-day operations.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Columbia Residential said no tenants had been evicted for non-payment of rent since June 2020, several months before a federal moratorium too effect. And they said neither Warnock nor Ebenezer were involved in the building’s operations.

“As the building’s sole management agent, Columbia Residential handles all aspects of property management at MLK Village; the building’s owners bear no responsibility for the day-to-day operations of the property, nor do they exercise any oversight of the building tenants’ rental transactions,” the statement said.

“The foundation failed to disclose MLK Village Corp as a related organization even though it has had the same three registered officers since 2018,” the complaint said. “They are considered a Brother/Sister organization since they are ‘controlled by the same person or persons that control the filing organization,’” it alleged.

Seizing on the eviction news, Walker offered to ante up the past due rent.

“I will personally pay the $4,900 in past due rents listed in this article to keep Reverend Warnock from evicting these people,” Walker said in a statement.

The AJC reported in June that Ebenezer pays Warnock a housing allowance of $7,417 per month. The arrangement has been approved by the Senate Ethics Committee. Senate rules limit how much U.S. senators can earn in addition to their $174,000 government salary. But the housing payments — the campaign calls it a “personal parsonage allowance” — are not subject to that cap, the Senate Ethics Committee said

Warnock and Walker are set to face off in their first debate Friday night in Savannah. Polls show the race is essentially tied.